Is Climate Change the Real Job Killer?
If trade unionists truly want to protect jobs, they must address the effects of climate change on labor, says Joe Uehlein, president of the Labor Network for Sustainability
D. Lascaris: This is Dimitri Lascaris for the Real News in Silver Spring, Maryland. We’re here today at the Convergence on Climate, organized by the Labor Network for Sustainability. I’m here today with Joe Uehlein, who’s the president and the co-founder of LMS. Thank you very much for joining us today.
J. Uehlein: Yeah, thanks for having me. Good to be here.
D. Lascaris: Why don’t you start by telling us about how you, as a member of organized labor, became involved in this important initiative towards sustainability?
J. Uehlein: I started at a young age working in an aluminum mill in central Pennsylvania, and joined the steelworkers’ union. That mill was wiped out by Hurricane Agnes, which devastated central Pennsylvania in 1971. Then I went to work as a laborer, on flood cleanup at first, and then I found myself working at Three Mile Island in the construction of that power plant. Every day I went to work, I’d cross a picket line of environmental works who didn’t want the power plant to be built. They had a point. It’s right next to the airport. The cooling towers weren’t designed to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707, which was the largest jet at that time. They had other reasons.
I understood that and sympathized with them. At the same time, it was the best job I ever had. My union, however, had a bumper sticker that said, “Hungry and out of work? Eat an environmentalist.” That I didn’t like. I had grown up along the banks of the Great Lake Erie at a time when we swam in the lake, and we ate the yellow perch. Then they posted all the signs saying, “You can’t swim in the lake. You can’t eat the perch.” By 17, I had a developing environmental awareness given that upbringing, so I objected to the bumper sticker.
That didn’t go over well, but what that did was, as I pursued my life’s work in the trade union movement, I did so with very strong environmental convictions that stem not just from the fact that we have to take care of this precious planet but that it’s in our self-interest as trade unionists to take care of this precious planet. That’s how I got started, at least on the larger environmental questions.
D. Lascaris: Your comments remind me of something the head of Greenpeace said not too long ago in advance of the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, that there are no good jobs on a dead planet. As powerful and as true as that message obviously is, the conflict that you’ve talked about is one that is I think playing out in many industrialized and non-industrialized economies, between the interest of organized labor in a solution to the climate crisis but their obvious and understandable desire for the maintenance of good jobs.
In Canada, where I come from, we saw last year the social democratic party, the NDP, holding its conference in Alberta, which is the center of the oil industry in Canada, the tar sands. They had a debate about whether to adopt the Leap Manifesto, which Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis have championed. It turned out to be quite acrimonious. A very senior figure from the labor movement there quite bitterly condemned the proponents of the Leap Manifesto for the reason that this was potentially going to cause the loss of good-paying jobs in the oil sector, which is quite important to the Canadian economy.
In an era when government is not going to help the American workers through the transition to a sustainable, clean energy economy, and in fact doesn’t even have any apparent interest in moving us in that direction, whether through policy or funding or otherwise, how do you persuade workers to get onboard with this enterprise, and how do you persuade the leaders of organized labor to get onboard?
J. Uehlein: I think there are two different ways. One approach for working-class people, and another for the leadership of the labor movement. Frankly, they’re harder. The leadership is a tougher sell.
D. Lascaris: Why is that?
J. Uehlein: I think that I know why it is. As a trade union leader, and I served as one for many years. I was elected secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s industrial division. We have a moral and a legal responsibility to represent the interests of people who pay dues to unions today and want their jobs protected. I totally get why the leaders, they want to protect the jobs of coal miners and fossil fuel workers. These people are paying dues to unions today.
The thing is that we also have a moral responsibility to look out for the future of our movement, the labor movement. That is where the problem is, because climate change is the real job killer. It is the threat to the future of the labor movement. That’s something that we have more work to do to get the leaders of the labor movement to think seriously about.
Working people, when you talk about climate change is the real job killer, they tend to get it. I get responses, say, from public employees, both leaders and rank and file who are in AFSCME and AFT. They say, “We don’t really have skin in the game, so to speak, and so why should we be active on this?” I say, “Think about this. Your reason for existence as a union is to negotiate good contracts. You can only do that if there are healthy state, local, and federal budgets, otherwise you can’t negotiate good contracts. Climate change is going to devastate those budgets.”
It already is, and the projections are that it will devastate them even more. At the last Convergence a year and nine months ago, the head of the Washington state AFL-CIO talked about how the budget for fighting forest fires in the state of Washington has increased 15-fold in the last decade. That’s true for the entire west. Montana, they’ve all got forest fires. We’ve seen what happened with Harvey, with Katrina, with Sandy, with Irma. This is going to devastate budgets, so public employees have as much a reason to fight for this as anyone, maybe more so.
D. Lascaris: You talk about these very recent extreme weather events. What’s happened in 2017 is mind-boggling, what we’ve seen in terms of the wildfires you mentioned. Harvey, 50 inches or so of rainfall in Houston, a record for the United States. Irma, the first category five to form out in the open Atlantic east of the Leeward Islands, where the waters tend to be cooler. Now we have Maria, which has in Trump’s own words obliterated Puerto Rico.
This is a relatively new initiative. It’s your second Convergence. How do you compare the attitude of labor leaders today, particularly in the wake of the extreme weather we’ve seen recently, towards the Labor Sustainability Network’s mission to the way it was when you first embarked on this project?
J. Uehlein: The minds are far more open today than they were when we embarked, and more than that, unions are now taking action on this issue. When we started LNS, no union was acting on climate change. A few had adopted resolutions. My union, the Steelworkers, was the first union to adopt a resolution on climate change, but nobody was taking action.
Then came the Keystone pipeline, which was a big, divisive issue between labor and environmentalists. It brought some unions out on the anti-pipeline position. NNU, the National Nurses United, the Amalgamated Transit Union, the TWU, then CWA. That conflict brought about change, which is what happens historically.
Then there was the big march in New York, the first big climate march. There were 100 local unions that endorsed that march. This thing is really growing. We had 75 people at the Convergence last year, and we’ve got almost double that here this year.
D. Lascaris: Congratulations on growing the LNS, and we wish you the best of luck in your endeavors. Thank you for joining us today, Joe.
J. Uehlein: Thanks for having me.
D. Lascaris: This is Dimitri Lascaris for the Real News.